“Try to represent what the notion of time would be without the processes by which we divide it…it is not my time which is thus arranged; it is time in general, such as it is objectively thought of by everybody in a single civilization” (10).  He goes on, “That alone is enough to give us a hint that such an arrangement ought to be collective” (10).For Durkheim, without the available terms (provided through collective emergence in society), the very possibility of thinking is obstructed. Put positively, it is the fundamentally productive nature of collective discourse that allows us to think, and thus ‘to be.’ If something doesn’t operate within the sign system of a community of speakers, it simply doesn’t exist at all. Similarly, without a society to come together and define religious practices, there just isn’t any such thing. This is Durkheim’s point, that religion is a very particular and fundamental kind of construct, but a construct never the less, or better put, religion may be a construct, but it’s a very fundamental one nevertheless.


Durkheim is not at all interested in defining religion by common traits. Just as a dolphin and a fish though sharing ‘traits’, have come to their forms in their own ways, modern religious ‘traits’ too have histories. This will, therefore, not be his object of investigation. Instead he will look to “fundamental representations or conceptions and [ ] ritual attitudes” that in spite of their apparent differences, “have the same objective significance and fulfill the same functions everywhere” (5). What then are these ‘fundamental representations’?  Not the supernatural (24), not divinity (29), as the first is a Johnny-come-lately on the historical stage, and the second simply absent in many religions.


This paring away of ‘concepts’ is a very risky move for Durkheim, and only by a very thin margin does it allow him to resolve the following conundrum; after he has cut concepts, even categories, down to their historical and contingent nature, how can he dare return to ‘religion’ (qua concept) to begin such a discussion at all?  Hasn’t he just cut the legs out from under himself? Durkheim’s resolution recognizes ‘functions’ (or relations) rather than objects—tres structuralist, non? The relation he focuses on is that between profane and sacred. 


For Durkheim these are not mere categories. Other likely candidates he summarily squashes, e.g., “the traditional opposition of good and bad is nothing beside this; for the good and the bad are only two opposed species of the same class, namely morals” (38).  For Durkheim sacred and profane are fundamental in as much as they are radically different from one another. They are not merely opposites, but absolutely and irresolvable Other from one another.  Unlike, say, water and ice, which can move back and forth between categories, the transformation from profane to sacred is a transformation totius substantiae-of the whole being (39). A transformation from profane to sacred, unlike that from water and ice, has no continuity, but rather, requires death to intervene- and a re-birth to complete the transformation. (‘Death’ both for Durkheim and for Malinowski, plays an extraordinarily important role in religion, but as you will see, in very different ways).


The most frequent criticism of Durkheim is that the individual is ignored. This is true. But it must be recognized that the individual is more methodologically disregarded than overlooked, per se; Malinowski’s conclusions in “Magic, Science and Religion” are greatly at odds with Durkheim’s, but if we tilt our heads and look through Durkheim’s eyes, Malinowski’s evidence, for the most part, supports and brings some light to Durkheim.


Malinowski is interested in the individual, the individual’s desires, and needs as the essential object of anthropological study. Malinowski, “laid stress on the direct emotional forces created by contact with death and with the corpse, for they primarily and most powerfully determine the behavior of the survivors” (50).  He takes the anxiety surrounding death to be an individual affair, or “an individual crisis” (60). But is this so? Could one not just as well think of death as the ultimate recognition of the impersonal nature of a system that will continue on without the individual, a system that has used the individual and has no more need for him, the very system against which the word ‘individual’ has any meaning? Could the very anxiety be not that one is an individual, but that one sees how very little their individuality (which they had probably protected with great effort throughout their life) counts for.  With one’s death, the enormity of ‘society’ comes into full view.  Following from this reading, the concept of the hereafter, rather than being for the individual, might just as likely be the buzz of that Marxian opiate.


Indeed Malinowski’s observations seem to support this alternate reading as, an individual’s last gesture, after the actor has left the stage, becomes not a caesura, but rather an impetus, for ‘the whole community to forgather’.  At the end of the day, Malinowski’s psychological orientation is questionable, lacks a historical perspective, and often errs toward ethnocentricity. This ethnocentrism is most apparent in his discussion of solitude. “Everyone,” he writes, “who has experienced religion deeply and sincerely knows that the strongest religious moments come in solitude, in turning away from the world, in concentration and in mental detachment, and not in the distraction of a crowd” (56).  This comment is rife with monastic, presupposition.


Now a few very brief comments on the evidence. Malinowski argues 1) “religion arises to a great extent from purely individual sources”, 2) society’s collective effervescence consists of both religious and non-religious aspects. 3) and here I will quote directly, “tradition, the sum total of certain rules and cultural achievements, embraces, and in primitive societies keeps in a tight grip, both Profane and Sacred” (59). Each of these assertions can remain true in Durkheim’s scheme if only we add here and in all cases the prepositional phrase, ‘through society.’

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture